Get Some Sleep: Was your mom a sleepwalker?
March 1st, 2011
10:23 AM ET

Get Some Sleep: Was your mom a sleepwalker?

Lisa Shives, M.D., is the founder of Northshore Sleep Medicine in Evanston, Illinois. She blogs on Tuesdays on The Chart. Read more from her at Dr. Lisa Shives’ Sleep Better Blog.

I was at a conference in Aspen last week and on the chairlift a woman told me that this was her first time back skiing after breaking her pelvic bone.  When I asked her how that happened, she said, “Sleepwalking.”

Sleepwalking, like night terrors, is classified as a parasomnia, which is any unwanted movement or physical occurrence that happens during sleep or immediately upon awakening.  It is much more common in childhood, with prevalence rates reported between 2 percent to 17 percent.  The peak age is 8-12 years and it is thought that most kids will outgrow this.  It does run in families and if a first degree relative experiences a parasomnia such as sleepwalking or night terrors, then a person is 10 times more likely to suffer from a similar parasomnia.

Clearly not all people outgrow it, and this woman had many stories of sleepwalking during her adulthood.  Although the fall which caused the broken pelvis was the worst event, she had many other near misses which underscores the message that the main health concern is the physical safety of the sleepwalker.

Sleepwalking can lead to actions such as driving, eating or engaging in sexual behavior.  There are rare but documented cases of people engaging in violent and even homicidal behavior while sleepwalking.  We think that there are deaths that are classified as a suicide, for example, when death occurs from jumping from a window or balcony, that might have been accidents secondary to sleepwalking.

The work-up a frequent sleepwalker will often include an overnight sleep study if there is any suspicion that an underlying primary sleep disorder such as obstructive sleep apnea or periodic limb movement disorder could be acting as a trigger of the sleepwalking episode, or if a seizure disorder is suspected.

Other common triggers include:  sleep deprivation, fever, stress, noisy sleep environment, and medications such as antihistamines, sedatives and stimulants including caffeine.  We do not have any evidence that sleepwalking is associated with psychopathology.

If there is no primary sleep or seizure disorder, then our focus is on eliminating the triggers of the partial arousal that then leads to sleepwalking, and of course we also discuss safety measures.  I recommend that frequent sleepwalkers sleep on the ground level whenever possible. I also recommend bells or alarms on doors and windows and heavy curtains on windows.

People often ask if it is dangerous to awaken a sleepwalker.  It is not dangerous, but we do not recommend it.  It is difficult to do and is usually more upsetting to the sleepwalker so we suggest gently leading the person back to bed. If a child has no memory of the event and safety measures are already in place, there is no reason to discuss the episodes as this may only cause anxiety about the sleep experience, which in turn can lead to other problems such as insomnia.

In rare cases where the sleepwalking is very frequent and actions are very dangerous, then we resort to medications such as the benzodiazepine, Clonazepam.

I was amazed to learn that, despite her traumatic injury during a sleepwalking episode, the woman on the chairlift had never seen a sleep specialist or had a sleep test even though she lived in a major city.  I urged her to seek advice and treatment from a sleep physician in order to avoid further injury.

The information contained on this page does not and is not intended to convey medical advice. CNN is not responsible for any actions or inaction on your part based on the information that is presented here. Please consult a physician or medical professional for personal medical advice or treatment.

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Filed under: Sleep

soundoff (21 Responses)
  1. Summer819

    I've done this since childhood and continue to do it as an adult. I've found it does happen more often when I am stressed. Our daughter is 3 1/2 and we've already had episodes of her walking and talking in her sleep.

    March 1, 2011 at 12:09 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Stephanie A

      I am working on a new series for the Biography Channel that is looking into parasomnias. We are looking for people who are suffering from sleep walking to tell their story and then we pair them with a sleep expert to help identify the issue and layout a plan for treatment. If you're interested in telling your story you can find me at Optomen productions in New York. optomenproductionsusa@gmail.com

      March 22, 2011 at 10:12 | Report abuse |
  2. Benzos

    Please, please, don't go on Clonazepam for sleepwalking. This is a highly addictive and highly dangerous drug. Yes, I know, because I have experience. Is it beneficial, for some serious conditions? Probably. Sleepwalking, absolutely NOT. Will you have adverse reactions to it? Maybe not. But if you do have a reaction to it or develop an accidental dependency on it, it will really mess you up. Take appropriate measures and deal with the sleep walking. This is NOT a mild drug, and unfortunately it's very loosely prescribed by doctors who have little understanding of the damage it can do or how to get people off.

    March 1, 2011 at 12:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. becca

    part of the brain paralyzes large motor movement during sleep so you don't act out your dreams and injure yourself. when this is not working right, sleepwalking can occur. get it checked out by a dr.

    March 1, 2011 at 12:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. pazczyk

    i used to sleepwalk as an adolescent and young adult. the last time i did it i was in college, and was asleep in my dorm room when the phone rang. my room had a sleeping loft, and the phone was downstairs, so i tried to get down the ladder in my sleep. woke up when i hit the concrete floor. that ended my sleepwalking episodes forever. no, i was not hurt, only stunned, and the damned phone was still ringing!!!

    March 1, 2011 at 13:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Kaylee

    I used to sleepwalk as a kid but thought I had grown out of it, I am 23 now. Maybe once or twice a year I would wake up in the bedroom or outside my door but never made it far. In October I broke my neck- I was sleepwalking and fell down my basement stairs. I am fine now but the doctors have said that there isn't much I can do for it, besides putting a bigger lock on my basement door (which I have done). I didn't have health insurance when it happened so I now owe about $600,000- Large price to pay for sleepwalking.

    March 1, 2011 at 13:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. FLEric

    Is my Mom a streetwalker?!?! How could you ask such a question? I'll kick your a**!!

    Sleepwalker? Oh, never mind...

    March 1, 2011 at 14:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Shutterbug77

    My daughter is a sleepwalker / talker. She is almost 11 and has been talking and walking in her sleep since she was in a toddler bed. We took her for a sleep study and the doctor recommended we try Melatonin. She takes it every night and we do have less instances, but still some. It may be worth trying.

    March 1, 2011 at 15:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Dawn

    I've walked outdoors as far as a half mile away sleepwalking. Woke up in the morning in my bed with muddy feet. I showed up at my neighbors one night as well. Must be genetic. My father actually has eaten an entire pie in his sleep among other things. My daughter has done it once so far... It is pretty scary.

    March 1, 2011 at 15:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Nate

    My wife had trouble with sleep walking, and now my daughter has it too. It was a nightmare (no pun intended). However things did seem to ease up after they used this sleep aid:

    March 1, 2011 at 17:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Stella

    My mother would make herself food in the middle of the night and the next morning she wouldn't remember doing it.

    March 1, 2011 at 17:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Erica

    I was a sleepwalker until I got pregnant (age 32). I think the hormones helped stop the sleepwalking and would be interested to see a study on it. My kids get night terrors, which is a boatload of fun, let me tell you. Thankfully they seem to be outgrowing it.

    March 1, 2011 at 17:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Alyssa

    I'm a 30 year old female and still sleepwalk consistently. I find that putting locks on things doesn't really make a difference because if I know how to unlock it while conscious then I'm equally capable of unlocking it while unconscious. I've seldom left the house and more often just stand up in my room and look around then lie back down again. Sometimes I speak to other people, but it's usually gibberish or nonsensical. I've never hurt myself doing it.

    March 2, 2011 at 12:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Sarah Baldwin

    I have an idea to suggest within these comments, I would like to recommend new sleepwear called Goodnighties. All the scary sleepwalking can be managed better with the benefit of this new fabric. It will help you arrive quicker and stay in a deeper stage of REM sleep. It's made with negative ions. I found it to be profound in allowing me to sleep straight through the night. Before I was hot and chronically exhausted from 'working' all night- my dreams were like another job and I was also restless when I was sleeping...... it was horrible. this will calm you down with out medication!

    March 6, 2011 at 20:38 | Report abuse | Reply
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